30 April 2014

Dust and Grail

A couple of years ago, we did a family read-aloud of "The Golden Compass". I'd read the book, we'd all seen the movie, but my husband hadn't ever read it, so every night after dinner, we'd sit down and one of us grown-ups would read a chapter aloud. If you've not read it, it's a little hard to summarize quickly. Suffice it to say that it interweaves magic, theology, science and armored bears, and that all of the humans have animal daemons, and that Dust is a mysterious important particle.

Towards the end of the book, Lyra finally makes her way to her father, Lord Asriel. [Note: this is a scene that's not in the movie.] In a long conversation about "dust", Asriel turns to the Bible to explain how sin came into the world, in Genesis. But the Golden Compass edition of the Bible - of course - includes daemons. Instead of reading thusly:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. (Genesis 3:6-7)

Pullman's version reads:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to reveal the true form of one's daemon, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they saw the true form of their daemons, and spoke with them.

But when the man and the woman knew their own daemons, they knew that a great change had come upon them, for until that moment it had seemed that they were at one with all the creatures of the earth and the air and there was no difference between them:

And they saw the difference, and they knew good and evil, and they were ashamed, and they sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness..." (The Golden Compass, p. 372)

This passage, which we made sure to point out was an adaptation of the King James, what with those daemons, led to a lively discussion amongst us, as to the origins of the Bible and what one might like to believe about it, and why it's important to read it and that it's a significant piece of the literary canon. Several days later, the girl asked me to get the Bible down from the high shelf it lives on, next to a hymnal and a concordance and not far from the third edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. I want to read about Jesus, she said. I made her start from Genesis; she slogged through several chapters and abandoned ship.

Until not too long ago, that is, when she - now ten - told me that she was reading the bible. Oh, said I, why? Well, I was watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and they were looking for the holy grail, and I thought I should learn more about Jesus. Okay, then.

* * * * * * * *

It is decidedly interesting to navigate the choppy waters of belief systems as a parent, especially given my longstanding status as a heathen pagan atheist1. The child apparently has had many conversations about religion at school - not in school qua school, but on the playground, in the cafeteria, on the bus. One boy told her he could never marry her because she's not Jewish. Other children are incredulous that she's not anything. You have to be something, they say. She tells me that she tells them that there's no scientific evidence that god exists. And she's curious. She's read One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship2. She knows, roughly, the difference between Catholics and Protestants because she's read about Bloody Mary. She's pretty good on the Greek myths, thanks to the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. We're going to go on a field trip to church - an Episcopal church, on Staten Island, where I know the Priest in charge3. We talk about lots of things at the dinner table - one recent meal included these wide-ranging vocabulary words: vernal, polygamy, geopolitical, solstice, autumnal, chalice. In short, we're working on religious literacy.

1 The Belief-O-Matic says I'm a Secular Humanist.

2 Incidentally, Mary Pope Osborne totally redeems herself in that book; I'd have never thought I'd want to own any books by the author of the infernal Magic Treehouse books, but this is a good one.

3 He married us, using a secular edit of the ceremony out of the Book of Common Prayer.

28 April 2014


Driving around doing errands, all the windows open, we were blasting Tina Turner's Proud Mary, as one does.

10yo: I like this, who is it?

Me: Tina Turner. She's pretty great.

10yo: This is the woman from the Muppets movie?

Me: (furrowed brow, jaw agape)

10yo: No, wait, that's Tina Fey.

Me: Um, yeah. Tina Fey and Tina Turner are different people.

They are, aren't they?

25 April 2014

Millicent. Miriam. Birds of a feather.

Millicent lived in my father’s bathtub, until he decided that the bathroom needed to be renovated. It’s awfully nice having a sturdy tile floor underfoot, instead of thinking that the toilet was going to plunge through the rotted old wood, but it was sad to see Millicent go. Someday, we’re going to stand her upright in the barn attic, facing the window, with a pinspot on her – Millicent on the half shell, if you will.

She came to mind because I found a delightful little ditty of a poem on Facebook not too long ago.

Careless Talk (by Mark Hollis)

Was ill.
In his delirium
He spoke about Miriam.
This was an error
As his wife was a terror,
As Joan.

Being unsatisfied with knowing nothing about poem or poet, I dove down the search rabbit hole. I can’t find out anything about the poet, though there are three people named Mark Hollis on Wikipedia (an English musician, and American athletic director, and an Australian actor), but the poem seems to have been set to music twice, by Paul Sjolund, and by Richard Wilson.

In any case, I do think Miriam and Millicent are soul sisters.

23 April 2014


Because school break and my vacation don't always coincide, I took my 10yo to work one day last week. It was a lovely day, until someone stepped between us as we were getting off a crowded subway, and she got separated from me for an instant. She looked unsettled, and I asked her what was wrong. "Someone blew on my neck. That was creepy." And indeed it was - truly creepy. In that moment, it hit me hard that I won't always be able to protect her, and that my job as her mother is to help her learn to be as resilient as possible.

21 April 2014

In Which I Start In One Place, And End In Another

You know how you meet people from time to time who are like siblings? I used to work with someone who could have been my brother. He and I got on famously, bickering all the time. I invited him to a party at my apartment, which both of my real siblings attended. They were both smitten; they too saw that he was clearly our brother-from-another-mother. He came for Christmas every year and he performed the ceremony at my sister's mock wedding (she'd eloped and this was the party for the masses, it needed a theatrical gesture).

More recently, not long after I started this blog, I found a sister-from-another-mother - Sarah, from Splitting Infinitives (though you might remember her as Slouching Mom). There are eerie coincidences in our lives, and we had similar mothers, and, it's hard to explain but we just share an odd cosmic bond. Last week, Sarah flattered me enormously and asked if I wanted to be next in line in a writing meme, #mywritingprocess, writing about how and why and what I write.

red pencil

Here's the thing. I'm not a writer. Oh, I write. And I know that I'm a better writer now than when I started blogging. Even my husband says so. But I'm not a writer. I'm a woman. I'm a gardener and an occasional sewist, I'm a cook and a daily commuter. I'm a mother, I'm a wife. I'm a Horrible Mensa Bitch and the Director of Everything Else - those are my favorite alternative titles that I threaten to put on my next business cards, because my actual title is sort of dull and doesn't convey all of the things I do at work. But I do write. I write letters to the editor, and I write employee handbooks, and I write advertising copy, and I write recipes. And I write about the things my child does, and I write about my mother, and I write about words that annoy me, and I write about the delight one can find while merely walking down the streets of New York City. And I write tiny little book reviews, and I write emails to the PTA, and I write so many paragraphs and sentences and novels in my head that never even get anywhere near a piece of paper.

It's exhausting just thinking about it.

But I'm not a writer. I'll prove it to you: I am constitutionally incapable of answering the following assigned questions.

1) What are you working on?

2) How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?
It's mine.

3) Why do you write what you do?
Because it's what occurs to me.

4) How does your writing process work?
It just comes. Like the gravy.

But what I do know is this: the more you write, the better it gets.

red mechanical

Two of my favorite writers - writerly writers - are next up.

The first is one of my oldest dearest friends, someone who writes and edits all day long, and blogs in her spare time: Julia of Lotsa Laundry. The other is an American in Paris Barcelona: Maggie of Maternal Dementia.

Let's put it this way. If I'm zooming through Feedly reading posts, I never ever hit "mark all read" on their posts. In fact, I usually "save for later" so that I can savor and ponder their words. You will too.

18 April 2014

Words to Live By

The reason that you go to the Bronx Zoo is so that you can see tigers.

But the bug carousel might be the most whimsical thing ever.

Especially because it has signs that tell you only one rider per bug.

Because honestly? Two people cannot one bug ride.

15 April 2014

Black Dirt All Around

It was a long horrible winter, but finally, FINALLY, it seems like spring. Sunday, one of the daffodils bloomed.

And yesterday, when I got home from work, there were enough open that I cut a handful for the dinner table.

I am very thrilled to be getting my gardening on FINALLY. We had to sit out all of last year, due to the construction project on our house. Not only could I not do anything, there were beds near the house that just got trashed, and there's a whole area where we took down some gigantic threatening trees - all of this needs work. Let me tell you, there is nothing as much fun as opening up cardboard boxes and unpacking all manner of little mail order plants.

Except maybe going to the wholesale nursery with a "connection" and heaving pots of this and that onto a flatbed tractor. Yeah, that was pretty fun.

* * * * * * * *

About a month ago, I was walking through the Greenmarket, on my way into the office, and I happened upon a vending machine. In the market, parked right there between a table of will-winter-never-end turnips and a booth selling Hot Bread. This vending machine was just visiting though - it's not a permanent installation, though wouldn't there be something cunning about dropping a quarter in and getting out a beet or an apple? I digress. This particular vending machine was sponsored by Seeds of Change, and it had a twist that I've not seen before: it was twitter-enabled, so if you tweeted a particular code, it made the vending machine whirl and spit out a brown paper bag of seeds.

I was thrilled to walk off with three packs of seeds: lettuce, broccoli, and peppers. I promptly planted them, inside in little improvised greenhouses, and they sprouted! Yeah! Green thumb! Alas, the stinking rotten cats have nibbled most of the leaves off of the broccoli seedlings, sparing the lettuce. Feh.

* * * * * * * *

In addition to my ambitious and possibly overactive seed starting, the girl's been doing an after-school gardening program. She brought home a clever little homemade self watering pot, upcycled from a small plastic water bottle. The top was cut off and flipped over and into the bottom, and a chunk of sponge descends from the neck down into the water, wicking the water up into the dirt that some lettuce is planted in.

We are rich in dirt these days, rich indeed.

14 April 2014


Things get stuck in my craw sometimes. Like this sentence:

One of the strange, wonderful facts about many atheists is their eccentricity and intellectual omnivorousness.

It was in a basically interesting column in the New York Times, called "Spreading the Word on the Power of Atheism", about an atheist writer named S.T. Joshi.

But let's unpack that sentence. Is it strange to be intellectually omnivorous? Are atheists alone in being eccentric and/or intellectually omnivorous? Are atheists so peculiar, so unusual that they get to be pigeonholed, damning with faint praise? Oh, an atheist, how eccentric. Replace "atheist" in that sentence with Jew, or Mormon, or Unitarian Universalist. Or, let's get away from religion. Replace "atheist" with Angolan or Bulgarian or Canadian or Dominican. Oh how cute, another eccentric Bulgarian.

I know. The offending sentence is tempered by that pesky "one of the" and the punch-pulling "many". But still. Let's not tar all of the atheists with the same strange and wonderful brush.

Some of us are not eccentric.

07 April 2014

Double Farce, or Hyperbole

It so happens that I don't spend a lot of time in the car. I take the train to the city every day, but I'm walking distance from the train station, so even if I do get a ride, it's not long enough to even bother turning on the radio. And because I'd rather read on the train, I don't listen to podcasts - it's not possible to read one text and listen to another. I kind of like the idea of podcasts, but they just don't fit into my life.

Not so long ago, I went away for the weekend, alone. Alone in the car for two hours there and two hours back! And so, I loaded up the iPod with "my" music, along with a podcast of sorts, actually, an NPR broadcast of Selected Shorts, specifically a short story called Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double) by one Harry Mathews.

Certainly, one can read this short story, read it to oneself while sitting in an overstuffed yet shabby but comfortable chair, parked in the sunshine with a cup of hand-harvested Darjeeling tea, from the highly regarded Sungma estate, to hand. In fact, I found the whole text on the internet; whether it belongs there is anyone's guess. You might visit Texas State University if you are entranced; you'll find the Farce Double nested deeply in postmodern literature:

But for a better experience of the Farce Double, I would urge you to go the extra step, for if the original roasting conditions will surely exceed your grasp, a description of them may clarify your goals.

Do not pass go. Do not wait to find out who does for him what mother never did for her son. The only possible way to experience the Farce Double is to listen to the late lamented Isaiah Sheffer read it, with aplomb and perfect timing. It is a joy.

Be careful whilst you drive, lest you run off the road when the tears come streaming down your cheeks from the laughing.

03 April 2014

Subway. Value added.

Sometimes there are musicians on the train. Not on the platform, but actually in the subway car. The usual suspects include a mariachi band, a blind accordion player, and the a capella doo-wop guys who only know Under the Boardwalk.

Not so long ago, two drummers showed up on the uptown #6, complete with folding stools: they meant business. The drums were djembes, I think – black, thigh high. They unfurled their stools and settled into the wide spot by the doors. Somehow, their beat beat, da dum dum entwined itself in and with the clackity clack of the wheels on the tracks. Together, it was glorious.

01 April 2014

Standardized Testing and Civil Disobedience

Every year, everywhere, there's back to school night. It's a chance to see the classroom, peer into your kid's desk, meet the other class parents, and hear what the teacher has to say. Last year, at the beginning of fourth grade, a parent asked about standardized tests. The teacher, a wonderful, caring veteran of many years said something that day that has stuck with me. She made it clear that because of the way the state ELA and math tests are administered, there's no feedback loop for the teacher. While, sometime after the children are no longer her students, she will know who got 1, 2, 3, or 4 on the exams, she doesn't know what kid got what question wrong, or that everyone in the class got question #37 wrong. Without that feedback, she has no way to improve on her teaching. Similarly, for the students (and their parents), the raw score labels the child a 1, 2, 3 or 4 and offers no information as to a child's strengths or weaknesses.

When the state tests rolled around last year, my child and my husband and I talked about the issues surrounding the tests, and about whether it made sense to have her refuse to take them. Last year, we were sheep: she took the test.

This year, she refused. And according to the conversation I had with the principal yesterday, she was the only child in her middle school to refuse.

There were many things we considered while making the decision that she would refuse the test. But what I kept coming back to was that issue raised by the fourth grade teacher: the lack of a feedback loop. If there's nothing to be learned from taking the test, then why take it?

Furthermore, we live in a high-performing district, and our child did well on the tests last year. If I were in a lousy district with a kid who tests badly, I'd be seen as wanting to avoid putting my child in an unhappy situation. But that's not it at all, and in fact, I think that the wealthy, well-performing districts should be leading the way in pushing for the kinds of education reforms that will help everyone.

To be sure, our small act of civil disobedience will not have much impact on our child, her teachers, or our district. But for us, it was the right thing to do.

If you are interested in some further reading, here are some pieces that helped us to make our decision. And yes, I made the ten year old read all of these. I wanted her to be conversant in the issues in case anyone asked her why she was reading a book in the guidance office instead of filling in ovals with a #2 pencil.